Repression Goes Local (6/02)

Portland, Oregon, received national attention last December when its police bureau refused a request by Attorney General John Ashcroft to question 200 locals of Arab descent. Justifying the refusal, Portland officials cited a state law that prohibits police from collecting information on any group or individual without a “reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior.”

Despite the feeding frenzy, mainstream media omitted some relevant background on the city’s decision: During City Council hearings two months earlier, a coalition of organizations had pointed out potential violations of that law by members of the Portland Joint Terrorism Task Force (PJTTF). Citizens were demanding that either the city implement independent oversight or reject PJTTF’s annual reinstatement.

Around the country, various JTTFs combine local police officers with FBI agents and members from many other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; IRS; and US Secret Service. Reportedly, they follow FBI guidelines – except in circumstances where state law is more restrictive.

The Portland hearings uncovered facts that demonstrate the difficulty of applying state restrictions to local officers transferred into JTTFs. To start, the officers become deputized federal officers, with special security clearance, meaning they can’t disclose assignments to anyone outside the unit, including police commanders. Officials also claim that independent oversight is prohibited, meaning JTTF files can’t be externally reviewed, even by the police chief and the mayor. Despite these problems, the city renewed the task force, anyway.

Not all city officials feel the same. When San Francisco police officers pushed to join a newly created JTTF in 1997, opposition by the mayor and citizens concerned that officers would no longer be held to local restrictions effectively prevented the officers’ participation.

Unfortunately, such resistance probably won’t prevent the rapid spread of JTTFs. Prior to Sept. 11 – which led to Ashcroft’s mandate that each judicial district form an anti-terrorist task force – the FBI had already created six regional task forces, in addition to 34 in major cities, with plans to continually increase that number. On Dec. 1, the FBI director instructed all 56 FBI field offices to establish JTTFs as soon as possible.

Although the FBI claims that they focus on preventing terrorism, many US citizens worry that these agencies actually represent the rebirth of Red Squads – police intelligence units formed in the late 1930s. For over 50 years, they infiltrated, disrupted, and kept “subversive” files on peaceful political groups such as the League of Women Voters, passing information on to the FBI and CIA. Similarly, a San Francisco police officer colluded with an FBI informant and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, maintaining files on numerous political activist groups. Eventually, San Francisco adopted a police department order that imposed restrictions on intelligence gathering.

In cities like Chicago, community groups struggled through years of litigation before finally obtaining consent decrees or legislation that prohibited local police from opening investigations on groups or individuals based solely on their political, religious, or ideological beliefs. In 1983, the FBI guidelines were modified in an attempt to curtail that agency’s civil rights abuses.

Procedural Smoke Screens

The FBI continually claims that guidelines limiting it to “reasonable suspicion of criminal actions” are too restrictive. Yet, the FBI has the ability to open preliminary investigations based on allegations of potential criminal intentions made by anyone, including paid informants. On the other hand, the rules followed by JTTFs may be a moot point, since law enforcement entities often ignore even the broadest guidelines. Ostensibly held in check after the infamous COINTELPRO cases of the 1970s, the FBI nevertheless maintained intelligence files on at least one non-criminal AIDS activist group, Act Up, from 1990 to 1991.

Equally troubling, local restrictions didn’t completely eliminate abuses by police intelligence agencies. For example, the Portland Police Criminal Investigation Unit (CIU) gathered intelligence on at least two non-criminal political activists from 1992 to 1998.

While state statutes may not prevent all abuses, in many jurisdictions, the law mandates audits of police intelligence files that could reveal illegal activity. Local restrictions also call for files to be purged as soon as it is evident that no crime has been committed. But the ACLU charges that the FBI keeps intelligence files forever, regardless of a lack of criminal activity.

According to David Fidanque, director of Oregon’s ACLU chapter, “The Bureau refused to make public the details of its surveillance of John Lennon for 14 years until it was finally ordered to do so by the federal courts in September 1997. Among the Lennon documents that had been withheld for reasons of national security was a report about a pet parrot that said Ôright-on’ whenever the conversation got Ôrousing’.”

Federal agencies now have Ashcroft’s permission to resist FOIA requests, rendering the extraction of information from local law enforcement organizations officially linked to the FBI even more difficult.

Protecting Business

Recently, James Jarboe, the FBI’s domestic terrorism chief, referred to vandalism against business property (including the release of minks) by certain environmentalists as “eco-terrorism,” even though such actions haven’t caused personal injury and could be handled by criminal statutes. When listing terrorist actions, however, the chief doesn’t include violence against activists such as the bombing of environmentalist Judi Bari. Listing several arrests of activists by JTTFs nationwide, Jarboe also promised that the task forces “will continue to strive to address the difficult and unique challenges posed by eco-terrorists.”

Before retiring as FBI director last May, Louis Freeh defined anarchists, whom he blamed for damage during the Seattle WTO meetings, as terrorists. Similarly, the original ordinance for the PJTTF stated its mission as the identification of those “responsible for Right Wing and/or Left Wing movements, as well as acts of the antiabortion movement and the Animal Liberation Front/Earth Liberation Front.” Although a commissioner’s objections struck that language from the ordinance, the task force’s intentions didn’t change: In early 2001, a labor union made plans to organize a rally at a construction site, unaware that a JTTF agent had informed the site manager about their intentions. On the day of the rally, union participants found the site shut down.

Clear evidence that JTTFs target activists also has come directly from an FBI source. During the PJTTF hearings, an agent stated that the task force would investigate violations of the Hobbs Act, which forbids interference with interstate commerce through the use or threat of force, violence, or fear. Those violations can be prosecuted under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), originally installed in 1970 to go after the Mafia.

During the past decade, RICO has been applied to various activists using civil disobedience. But last year, in Philadelphia, a business owner filed a RICO lawsuit against protesters who demonstrated peacefully against animal cruelty outside of his store, which showcases fur coats.

In short, a major focus of the task forces seems to be protecting business interests. Meanwhile, lack of meaningful accountability offers participating law enforcement members the opportunity to manipulate the fear of terrorism and violate civil rights.

Diane Lane, a writer, researcher, and member of Portland Copwatch, lives in Oregon.